Self-Treat or See a Health Care Provider?

When you’re sick, knowing if you can self-treat can save you time and hundreds of dollars a year. If you have a mild cold or a few scrapes, you could treat these with inexpensive drugstore remedies. Seeing your health care provider could cost $10 to $80 or more for an office co-pay. And an office visit takes time out of the day. Sometimes you need to see your health care provider. But in cases of minor problems, self-treating makes good sense. These tips can help you decide when to self-treat and when to seek medical care.

When it’s OK to self-treat

Many minor illnesses can be safely treated at home: a cold, minor diarrhea, mild stomachaches and headaches, and minor skin rashes and skin fungal infections. You can treat these by getting extra rest and taking appropriate over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. You can probably self-treat if:

  • You’re not very sick.

  • Your symptoms are mild and familiar and haven’t been going on for very long.

  • You don’t have a chronic illness or other condition for which you are taking medicines.

  • You ask your pharmacist for advice on which OTC medicines to take.

When to see your health care provider

You do need a health care provider’s care at times, even for everyday health problems. See your health care provider if you have:

  • A chronic illness or other condition

  • A cold, the flu, or a stomachache that’s getting worse even though you’re resting and taking OTC medicine

  • Unusual symptoms that are painful or worry you

  • A sinus infection, a bad sore throat with a fever, or other symptoms you think may need antibiotics

  • Diarrhea or constipation for longer than a week

  • Bloody diarrhea, or diarrhea with mucus

  • Joint pain that’s chronic and affects your normal activities, or joint pain along with redness or swelling of the joint

  • Back pain that’s chronic or includes pain that travels down your leg or arm

  • Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and depression lasting for at least 2 weeks

  • An injury you can’t treat yourself but that’s not an emergency

If you decide to see your health care provider, make the most of the visit by giving your health care provider a list of your symptoms, including when they began, how they’ve changed, and if anything you eat or do makes them worse. This can help your health care provider diagnose and treat you.

Common self-care mistakes to avoid

Here are steps to take to avoid some common self-care mistakes:

  • Watch the dose. Don’t take more medicine than the label says. The dosage advice on the label is there to protect you. High doses of some everyday drugs can cause stomach bleeding, liver damage, extreme drowsiness, and seizures.

  • Don't borrow medicine. Don’t use prescription medicine from a family member or friend. Drugs that need a prescription may not be safe for everyone. They may need special monitoring, such as regular blood tests. And they may interact with other medicines.

  • Don't take leftovers. Don’t use leftover prescription medicine. Even if you have similar symptoms, it may be a new illness that needs a new medicine.

  • Be careful with herbal remedies. Many herbal remedies are drugs with powerful effects. Some of them can raise blood pressure, thin the blood, or interact with other medicines you may be taking. Talk with your health care provider before taking any herbal remedies.

  • Be wary of Internet information. Don’t consult just any website. If a website promises a magical cure, be wary of its advice. Also, check sites for trustworthiness. Some sites are sponsored by companies that want to sell products. Ask your health care provider for trusted sources of health information for your needs.


Ask the pharmacist

You can always ask your pharmacist about prescription medications. But did you know that you can often ask a pharmacist about over-the-counter remedies, too? Whether you’re looking for eye drops, cough medicine, or bandages, talk with the pharmacist if you need help.

When in doubt, call your health care provider

Don’t self-treat too long before calling your health care provider. You don’t always save money by not seeing the health care provider. Sometimes the reverse is true—a health care provider visit could save you hundreds of dollars in medical costs if it keeps a small problem from becoming a big one. For example, a urinary tract infection can turn into a kidney infection that needs antibiotics or even a hospital stay. It’s always wise to ask your health care provider for his or her opinion.

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